Commonplace Book: October 2004 Archives

Richard Crashaw, I reintroduce as one of the two major Catholic poets of the Metaphysical Era. There may have been others, my study has been broad, but not terribly deep. Nevertheless, Crashaw and Vaughn are well worth our attention at their best.

The Recommendation
Richard Crashaw

THESE Houres, and that which hovers o’re my End,
Into thy hands, and hart, lord, I commend.
Take Both to Thine Account, that I and mine
In that Hour, and in these, may be all thine.
That as I dedicate my devoutest Breath         
To make a kind of Life for my lord’s Death,
So from his living, and life-giving Death,
My dying Life may draw a new, and never fleeting Breath.

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An Odd Ode by Thomas Gray


I stumbled on this this morning while looking for "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." The notes to the poem (at Representative Poetry On-Line) say that it is a free paraphrase from an Icelandic tale called "Lay of the Darts." Translated from Icelandic to Norwegian and Latin, Gray apparently got hold of the Latin version and produced this oddity.

The Fatal Sisters: An Ode
Thomas Gray

            Now the storm begins to lower,
            (Haste, the loom of Hell prepare.)
            Iron-sleet of arrowy shower
            Hurtles in the darken'd air.

            Glitt'ring lances are the loom,
            Where the dusky warp we strain,
            Weaving many a soldier's doom,
            Orkney's woe, and Randver's bane.

            See the grisly texture grow,
            ('Tis of human entrails made,)
            And the weights, that play below,
            Each a gasping warrior's head.

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This is one of those poems about which your teacher would require you to write a compare and contrast "theme." Don't do that. Just enjoy the language and the message--distinct, straightforward, clear.

Passing away, Saith the World
Christina Rossetti

            Passing away, saith the World, passing away:
            Chances, beauty and youth, sapp'd day by day:
            Thy life never continueth in one stay.
            Is the eye waxen dim, is the dark hair changing to grey
            That hath won neither laurel nor bay?
            I shall clothe myself in Spring and bud in May:
            Thou, root-stricken, shalt not rebuild thy decay
            On my bosom for aye.
            Then I answer'd: Yea.

            Passing away, saith my Soul, passing away:
            With its burden of fear and hope, of labour and play,
            Hearken what the past doth witness and say:
            Rust in thy gold, a moth is in thine array,
            A canker is in thy bud, thy leaf must decay.
            At midnight, at cockcrow, at morning, one certain day
            Lo, the Bridegroom shall come and shall not delay:
            Watch thou and pray.
            Then I answer'd: Yea.

            Passing away, saith my God, passing away:
            Winter passeth after the long delay:
            New grapes on the vine, new figs on the tender spray,
            Turtle calleth turtle in Heaven's May.
            Though I tarry, wait for Me, trust Me, watch and pray.
            Arise, come away, night is past and lo it is day,
            My love, My sister, My spouse, thou shalt hear Me say.
            Then I answer'd: Yea.

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A Song for Our Time


The follow excerpt from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem speaks volumes both then and now. Think about our modern plight and see if it is not well reflected in this past of the song.

from "The Lotos-Eaters"--8th Strophe of the Choric Song
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Lotos blooms below the barren peak,         
The Lotos blows by every winding creek;
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone;
Thro’ every hollow cave and alley lone
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
We have had enough of action, and of motion we,         
Roll’d to starboard, roll’d to larboard, when the surge was seething free,
Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea.
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.         
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl’d
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl’d
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world;
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,         
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,         
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whisper’d—down in hell
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.       
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

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"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"


From the original 1819 "Lamia" version, in which "wretched wight" is used instead of "knight-at-arms."

from "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
John Keats

            And there we slumber'd on the moss,
                 And there I dream'd, ah woe betide,
            The latest dream I ever dream'd
                 On the cold hill side.

            I saw pale kings, and princes too,
                 Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
            Who cry'd--"La belle Dame sans merci
                 Hath thee in thrall!"

For the complete poem, read further.

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To Be Completely Fair

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to both St. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics (contra another comment at Disputations) I quote:

One of the favorite things to ridicule is the supposed debate among the Scholastics on the question of "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?". Apparently, however, none of them put things in exactly these terms, as those concerned to rescue the reputations of Aquinas and the others are anxious to emphasize. The Scholastics could have very reasonably focused on this funny question, however, for it does concentrate several of their points of dispute, including whether "angels" have a corporeal (bodily) or merely spiritual existence.

And in fact, some of the Scholastics, such as Aquinas, did dance quite close to the precise question, as this little taste from his "Summa Theologiae" shows:

Q. 52, a. 3 - "Whether Several Angels Can Be At The Same Time In the Same Place? There are not two angels in the same place. The reason for this is because it is impossible for two complete causes to be immediately the causes of one and the same thing. This is evident in every class of causes. For there is one proximate form of one thing, and there is one proximate mover, although there may be several remote movers. Nor can it be objected that several individuals may row a boat, since no one of them is a perfect mover, because no one man's strength is sufficient for moving the boat; the fact is rather that all together are as one mover, in so far as their united powers all combine in producing the one movement. Hence, since the angel is said to be in one place by the fact that his power touches the place immediately by way of a perfect container, as was said (Q. 52, a. 1) there can be but one angel in one place."

The original source in its entirety.

That said, I will point out that even the point made here by Aquinas has vanishingly little relevance to how we are to conduct ourselves as Christians, and that is the point of the mockery "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" In a sense that study becomes so abstruse that it becomes disconnected from the reality of living and hence, useless.

That said, the questions about angels comprise a minute portion of the Oeuvre produced by St. Thomas Aquinas. While some of the other questions may have similar small relevance, there can be no denial of the immediate importance of the vast majority of his work. There are probably many "hobbies" of Saints to which we could take exception were we so inclined. I don't see how speculations about angels are out of order in the enormity of the serious and focused work done.

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Goblin Market


Perhaps Christina Rosseti's most famous poem. Perfect for this season of slow decline and waning light.

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From the very end of an agony in eight fits--

from The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits
Lewis Carroll

          "It's a Snark!" was the sound that first came to their ears,
              And seemed almost too good to be true.
          Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
              Then the ominous words "It's a Boo-"

          Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
              A weary and wandering sigh
          Then sounded like "-jum!" but the others declare
              It was only a breeze that went by.

          They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
              Not a button, or feather, or mark,
          By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
              Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

          In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
              In the midst of his laughter and glee,
          He had softly and suddenly vanished away---
              For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

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The Mouse Tower


A folk tale that I had forgotten (or perhaps not known) until perusing "The Children's Hour" this evening. Read about wicked Bishop Hatto and his mouse tower on the Rhine. Ah! now that's poetic justice!

Perhaps tomorrow we'll consider Keats's Lamia, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and Coleridge's magnificent Cristabel

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Somber Autumnal Poems

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One of the things I love about the season is a return to some of the splendid poems of early youth, but also returns to some like the excerpt below, that came in later studies. See here for the complete poem.

from "Ode to the Confederate Dead"
Alan Tate

What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
The gray lean spiders come, they come and go;
In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl's tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

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From Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Typically syntactically tortured, but transcendantly beautiful.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Gerard Manley Hopkins

            As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
                As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
                Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
            Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
            Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
                Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
                Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
            Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
              I say more: the just man justices;
               Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
            Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
               Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
            Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
               To the Father through the features of men's faces.

"The just man. . . acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is--Christ." That says it all. And the unjust. Well, see psalm 1 for the answer there.

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Has ever been a favorite. Tightly repressed, and somewhat pursed-lipped, nevertheless, she whispers through the ages poems that have no age. I have no idea how she would vote, and I like it that way.

The Snake
Emily Dickinson

The Snake

            A narrow fellow in the grass
            Occasionally rides;
            You may have met him,--did you not,
            His notice sudden is.

            The grass divides as with a comb,
            A spotted shaft is seen;
            And then it closes at your feet
            And opens further on.

            He likes a boggy acre,
            A floor too cool for corn.
            Yet when a child, and barefoot,
            I more than once at morn,

            Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
            Unbraiding in the sun,--
            When, stooping to secure it,
            It wrinkled, and was gone.

            Several of nature's people
            I know, and they know me;
            I feel for them a transport
            Of cordiality;

            But never met this fellow,
            Attended or alone,
            Without a tighter breathing,
            And zero at the bone.

That last stanza is a clencher, and the last line, sheer genius--in fact it inspires the very feeling it describes--a delicious chill, an ominous ringing.

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I'm convinced that were he alive today, Whitman would vote for John Kerry.

from "Song of Myself"
Walt Whitman

              I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
              And what I assume you shall assume,
              For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

              I loafe and invite my soul,
              I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

              My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
              Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
              I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
              Hoping to cease not till death.

            Creeds and schools in abeyance,
            Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
            I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
            Nature without check with original energy.

I will leave it to others (including Whitman himself) to celebrate the genius of Whitman, it has ever eluded me.

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To Autumn
John Keats (1795-1821)

             Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
                   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
             Conspiring with him how to load and bless
                   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
             To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
                   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
                        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
                   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
             And still more, later flowers for the bees,
            until they think warm days will never cease,
                       For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

            Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
                  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
            Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
                  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
            Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
                  Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
                       Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
            And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
                  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
                  Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

                       Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
            Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
                  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
            While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
                  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
            Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
                  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
                       Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
            And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
                  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
                  The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
                       And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

When I first encountered this poem in a Keats class in College the professor claimed that it was flawed in its near perfection. At the time I found that profound, and I suppose there is still some merit in the notion, but I think now that it is perfect in its near perfection, in its capturing of the spirit of the season so well.

(And yes, OBJ., I know you'd prefer I didn't wander so frequently in the groves of poetry. But then, I'd prefer that you would wander there more, and lead by the hand the little ones in your charge. And this goes for all you home-schooling moms! If it is within your power, give your children poetry early and often. And don't beat them over the head with analysis and with talk of symbolism and all sort of other nonsense that too often accompanies the reading of poem. Rather, savor the language, the richnesses, the rhythms, the sheer beauty of what is there and the symbolism and all the rest will follow, more or less naturally. Keats did not have to instruct his public in how to read his poetry, and they were a good deal less sophisticated than we claim to be. Poetry is an enormous gift to children--from sing-song rhymes to epic verse. Let it be an experience of immersion, not of distant intellectual approach.)

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Wordsworth on Contemplative Silence


Though he would not have called it that. Look at this second strophe of Tintern Abbey and see if it does not recall the states described by the mystics. Wordsworth does not attribute it to God, and yet, in his own way, I think that it is because he encounters God most directly in the freedom of nature, as Paul said in Romans (?), the second scripture.

from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798

William Wordsworth

                                                    These beauteous forms,
            Through a long absence, have not been to me
            As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
            But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
            Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
            In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
            Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
            And passing even into my purer mind
            With tranquil restoration:--feelings too
            Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
            As have no slight or trivial influence
            On that best portion of a good man's life,
            His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
            Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
            To them I may have owed another gift,
            Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
            In which the burthen of the mystery,
            In which the heavy and the weary weight
            Of all this unintelligible world,
            Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood,
            In which the affections gently lead us on,--
            Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
            And even the motion of our human blood
            Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
            In body, and become a living soul:
            While with an eye made quiet by the power
            Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
            We see into the life of things.

We see into the life of things. We see into the life of the most important things, the life of the three persons of God. We do not understand it, nor can we begin to grasp it in its fullness. Nevertheless, the contemplative experience is a window into the life of God, a glimpse into His Holiness and His perfection. And with a window into God, we have a window into all that matters in life. Wordsworth captured it well here. He summarizes it in a way that would befit St. John of the Cross in his mystical transports. Go and read the whole thing and enjoy. Literature is not the highest good, but it is certainly a great good--greater yet when it offers us a picture of the divine.

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As We Wait and Pray, a Tribute


Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night
Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion
Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.


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Languages for Work

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Sitting here sipping my redbush tea and reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith when I happen across this:

They taught us Funagalo, which is the language used for giving orders underground. It is a strange language. The Zulus laugh when they hear it, because there are so many Zulu words in it but it is not Zulu. It is a language which is good for telling people what to do. There are many words for push, take, shove, carry, load, and no words for love, or happiness, or the sounds which birds make in the morning.

I thought about this with the Wittgensteinian and Orwellian view that words shape reality and the reality shaped by this language. And then, dragonfly-like, having hovered for a moment over that concept, it occurred to me--what if Wittgenstein was even a little bit right? What if Orwell had enough understanding of human psychology to have identified a major factor in our lives?

Hover with me for a moment, glance at the reflection this thought makes, the ripples of our wings in the water. If this is so, even only slightly so, does it not reemphasize the need to speak aloud the words of the Psalms in prayers? Does it not argue that singing psalms and hymns and hearing the words God speaks to us through these inspired works creates a reality more conducive to giving ourselves to God? Isn't this the most important thing--shaping reality (by grace) to receive grace? Perhaps we should not have so many words "for push, take, shove, carry, load." Perhaps, just maybe, we should have more words for love and joy and God and worship and presence and union and, "the sound birds make in the morning."

Do you pray aloud? Do you hear and live in the world the words of the psalms make? Do you voice your reflections in the course of the Rosary, making them substantial and real.

Yes, I suppose it is unusual for a Carmelite to encourage vocal prayer. But St. Teresa of Avila would tell us that one "Our Father' prayed perfectly is worth any number of hours of struggling mental prayer. If one prays with one's heart what one's word speaks, one is already entering the realm of contemplative prayer. There's no trick--our attention merely needs to be on Him. Our words must be real and make the world a different place for us to live. A place that encapsulates everything God would have us be and do.

Enough of the ripples. Let your mind enter those things that are worthy and they will speak--even light entertainment can bring you closer to God if you allow it. I never fail to be amazed that the places God can find and surprise me. He seeks us everywhere.

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Here, succinctly stated, is the truth I've come through time to recognize about the King James Bible.

from God's Secretaries
Adam Nicolson

English was simply the target, the destination, not the language in which questions of precise meaning were naturally addressed. The Englich sentences were being prepared for others, the non-educated, who had no access to the essence of the text which these scholars, like Bois, had been drinking in for decades. The English, in other words, was itself subservient to the original Greek.

That linguistic hierarchy is also one of the sources of the King James style. This English is there to serve the original not to replace it. It speaks in its master's voice and is not the English you would have heard on the street, then or ever. It took up its life in a new and distinct dimension of linguistic space, somewhere between English and Greek (or, for the Old Testament, between English and Hebrew). These scholars were not pulling the language of scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Bible are just as much English pushed towards the condition of a foreign language as a foreign language translated into Englilsh. It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englilshmen would have written, and that secretarial relationship to the original languages of the scripture shaped the translation.

The majesty of the King James Bible is that the language there spoken has never been spoken by any people as the common tongue.

Taste in translation and in approaches to the Bible is largely, I think, similar to taste in the types of liturgies people prefer. Some prefer Latin Masses of the Tridentine School, others the Novus Ordo, still others the vernacular. All of these are excellent vehicles approved by the Church. The translation of the Bible is similar, although not all translations are of comparable worth. Some sing, and some plod; however all serve one audience or another and are therefore intrinsically valuable.

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Wilfrid Stinissen Revisited

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I suppose I am riding this hobby-horse to death, but I find so much within Stinnisen worthy of attention. I was remarking to the leader of the group with whom I am studying this book a second time that like our other works (Rick Warren and Alan Jones), I am having real problems with this study. Unlike our other studies, my problems with this one is that there is so much in so few pages that I cannot seem to force myself through the book at the pace we want to maintain. I get lost in the magnificence of some of the ideas, and I'm constantly reaching for my Bible--the latter probably the greatest tribute one could pay to such a work.

from Nourished by the Word
Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen O.C.D.

The Bible gives us a synthesis of all of reality but not thereby a system. One does not find an elaborated systematic theology or anthropology in the bible. It is always life which is primary. If you direct theoretical questions to the Bible, you receive practical answers. Who is God, you ask? And the Bible replies: live as a child to your heavenly Father, dare to be children, trustful and lighthearted; follow Jesus, who is the Father's image in the world, partake of his suffering and be like him in a death like his; wait for and listen to the Spirit and let its inspiration be shown to advantage in your life. What is prayer you ask? And the reply sounds imperative: so shall you pray: Our Father . . .

What is love? It is wonderful to philosophize over love, over Eros and agape, but you don't have the time; do like the Good Samaritan, give food to those that are hungry.

Will there be many who will get to heaven or only a few, a majority or a minority? "Strive" replies Jesus, "to enter through the narrow door" (LK 13:24). Don't waste your time with speculations over quantities, don't occupy yourself with statistics, but see to it that you yourself are present.

As I have grown in the Carmelite charism, I have discovered any number of wonders implicit in the ancient Rule of St. Albert and spelled out more clearly by the ongoing reformation and redefinition of the Order, particularly in the rule for the third Order. One of the things emphasized at every opportunity is the necessity and the glory of lectio divina. So much so that one Priest of the order described lectio as the glory of contemplative prayer. The order has said that it is highly desirable that communal lectio divina be part of our monthly gatherings. And when we are faithful to that, the monthly meetings are fruitful, productive, and life-changing. When we fail in it, then little else that happens at the meeting is of any worth.

All Catholics and all orders highly prize the word of God, they cannot do otherwise. The Dominicans show how they cherish is in the charism of preaching the word--making it clear for those who have a lesser understanding. But such preaching can only be fueled by spending time in the word, steeping oneself in it. Franciscans bring it to life through evangelical poverty. But such poverty is meaningless unless it calls to mind Him for whom we endure poverty, unless it reifies the word in the world.

The mission of the lay Carmelite is to bring the word of God into the world through our evangelical works. But how can one do that if one is not aware of what the word says? How can one preach by actions if one's own actions are not informed by the Word of God. All that we would say would be falsehood.

Stinissen points out here that above all else, the Word is practical or it lacks any meaning at all for us. We are not given a philosophical system (not that there is anything wrong with such), but rather a set of instructions, commandments, or guidelines that tell us how to be God's children. More than that, we are given multiple views of His Only Begotten Son so that we might better see what it means to be a child of God. And with this equipment, we are to go out into the world and make it real for people who do not even begin to suspect its truth.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from October 2004.

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